The State of Music Production in 2017: 6 Takeaways from a Producer

by Nick Messitte, iZotope Contributor

September 21, 2017

Jayme Silverstein

Jayme Silverstein on tour

A couple of years ago, I taught music and music production to teenagers at a summer camp. I took the gig as a sort of vacation, so I could hang out rent-free in Maine for two months (one of my favorite places in the world). Quickly, however, it turned into one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, culminating in a 22-track album written and produced by the students.

The kids I taught? They had different musical goals from mine as a child. Sure, we taught some lessons centered around musical instruments, but I didn't see many children interested in guitar. No. These kids were lining up to learn how to "produce." And forget about dubstep—these kids were into deep house.

All of this got me thinking, what does it mean to be a music producer in 2017? Has the job fundamentally changed? And, while we're at it, what are some of the production hallmarks of 2017? What’s making our time sound like our time?

To answer these questions, I called on Jayme Silverstein, a working producer in Los Angeles, and an old friend.

Jayme started out as a bass player and composer (I mixed and mastered his first solo jazz outing, as a matter of fact). Over the years, he’s toured with Miguel and Nico and Vinz among others, but he always had an eye on production; if you remember that "friend in top-line crime" I told you about in my recent compression article well, that was Jayme.

While I migrated to post-production, article writing, and less poppy pursuits, Jayme continued to hone his craft. Now, going by the name of BRIDGES and working with The Trust Music Group, he's on the verge of a break: He’s working on albums for South African pop star Lira (she’s currently a judge on The Voice South Africa), finishing up an album for American pop group JAGMAC, starting production work on Teen Wolf's Dylan Sprayberry, and celebrating other accomplishments—for instance, having a #1 single on France’s Billboard charts this year with Richard Orlinski.

Since Jayme and I saw a little of the game when we worked together, and since he waded through the muck to garner those respectable creds, I figured he'd have an interesting perspective on what makes producing music in 2017 different from earlier epochs.

He did not disappoint. What follows are highlights of a conversation between me and Jayme, subdivided, categorized, and presented around certain points. Fair warning, these claims represent our perspectives—and perhaps, ours alone—but I think they're borne out in the context of our contemporary music scene.

1. We Might Be Closer to the '50s than the '90s

Everybody likes to go on about how the 90's are back, but Jayme spun my gears in a different direction when he brought up this essential point.

"I don’t think a music producer’s job has fundamentally changed that much through the years," Jayme said. "As a producer, your job is to finish music. Your job is to see anywhere from the song to the project from a bird’s eye view and deliver."

I asked him if that was really true. After all, up until recently, bands had a greater stake in the mainstream musical landscape, and what is more, tended to write their own music. A producer’s role, it seemed to me, was a little more hands-on now, be it in the writing, coordinating, or arranging departments.

“The tools have changed,” Jayme said, “but it’s still fundamentally the same job. Whereas now I’m reaching for Omnisphere or Battery or something, back in the day it used to be, ‘Let me call Anthony Jackson,’ or ‘Let me call Steve Gadd.’”

And that's when the big statement bolded above this section hit me.

“You know what occurs to me, now that you say that?” I asked.

“What?”

“Back in the early days—in the fifties? Not a lot of people really wrote their own stuff. Artists had to fight to write. Now we’re almost kind of back there. The producer oversaw the writing back then and the producer does the same thing now, with less input from the artists.”

"Well, I'd be careful about that," Jayme said. "Artists still have a ton of input—in fact, still the most input on their records. Producers are getting a lot of shine now, but we still answer to the artist, and unfortunately to the label."

"But in the way producers orchestrate the writing, arrangement and what have you—"

“—Yeah, it’s kinda back to the fifties," Jayme interrupted, with a bit of a laugh.

"This Is Your Life" BBC TV 1950s Russ Conway

2. Extended Harmonies Are Back in Vogue

One contemporary trend that does seem to harken back to the ‘90s—at least in Jayme's view—is the harmonic structure of today’s music. Jayme’s had formal, music conservatory training; he can spot, by ear, the difference between a German, a French, and an Italian sixth chord. So when he tells me harmony “is in a cool spot right now,” I tend to believe him.

“All that curated Spotify shit,” he went on, “you can tell that dudes who really know what they’re doing are making it. Harmony’s getting extended again. You have Arianna Grande, who’s doing these big ‘90s R&B bridges where they go to, you know, four-minor and other chord-changes? Everybody’s grabbing from the ‘90s—and the ‘90s stuff was pretty adventurous harmonically.”

This got my wheels spinning about the chord progressions we’ve all come to recognize in today’s pop music: the biggest tunes of the last ten years tended to use chord progressions of the sort parodied on Youtube thousands of times over—stuff you really started to see take off in the ’80s, with bands like Journey. That’s how we ended up with like T.I. rapping over the chord changes for Avril Lavigne’s "Complicated" in a song such as "Whatever You Like". I remarked as much to Jayme, and he agreed. Likewise, in his estimations, just as we were recapitulating the ’80s ten years ago, we’re starting to address ’90s harmonies now.

3. One Chord, Many Sounds

However, as Jayme told me, we’re not only seeing a straight ‘90s rehash these days. What separates today’s music from earlier fare is the quality of sound choice—specifically, how these more extended, complex harmonies are carried out.

“If you listen to The Weeknd,” Jayme said, “they’ll put some Foley type air-mist sound thrown into a hall reverb, and that will become the ninth of the chord, and then the bass is doing something else. A lot of music now, you’re getting extended harmonies, but the arrangement is the amalgamation of four different sounds.”

“It’s almost like counterpoint, you’re saying?”

“Yeah, because if you play C, Eb, G, Bb, D on one instrument, that sounds like smooth jazz or whatever, but if you space that over five different instruments, then people tend to think that’s modern. I get away with murder all the time with that.”

In his answer, Jayme mentioned an “air-mist sound,” referring to it as “Foley.” Foley is a time-honed sonic art in and of itself, but not one that traditionally belonged in the strictly auditory realm: Foley is the bespoke act of creating sound effects in the post-production process of film and television. Footsteps, cloth swishing around, the sound of a body being tackled—much of that is accomplished with Foley in the film world.

It’s important to underscore that sound design and sound effects in music are not new; the Beatles employed such tricks, as did many in the industrial genres decades later. But now, we’re starting to see it creep back into the mainstream in a more calculated way. Jayme continues to observe how this trend is manifesting in our next point.

4. Use of Foley in Percussion Is on the Rise

Jayme previously mentioned sound design and Foley Art being a part of the harmonic sound beds, but he’s also seeing more and more in the rhythm parts of many songs just outside the mainstream—the type of “curated spotify stuff” that will be more and more popular soon. He first noticed this trend on Halsey’s debut album, Badlands.

“That was the first time my ears got hip to how dudes are using Foley,” Jayme told me. “The drums are very simple—it’s not super syncopated stuff—but the sound choice of the Foley creates a whole atmosphere.”

“You mean like Foley art? Found sound?”

“Yeah! Sound choice for productions has become a lot of Foley. Gears, air-pressure type sounds. Lido does this one thing with bike spokes. Or, the sound of a car door being opened—Foley is a really big thing. It’s not all over pop radio yet, but if you go on SoundCloud, all those dudes are doing it.”

To recap, it seems drums fashioned out of recorded sound-design and found sound, coupled with extended harmonies stretched over multiple, monophonic voices (some of which are also Foley) constitutes a growing segment of today's arrangements. Yet, merely noticing these trends does not a producer make; a music critic can easily do that and put forth nothing of value.

This brings us to our next observation.

Foley recording

Foley recording

5. Arrangement Matters More than You Think

To the extent that sound choices matter, it's only to inform the art of arranging a song. Jayme sees this as key to a successful career in 2017.

“In any producer/mixer magazine," he said, "there’s so much emphasis on product and technique, but the one thing that no producer ever talks about is arrangement. Because that’s the thing that makes you you. See, if I want to search long and hard enough, I can find that kick drum that you’re starting with, or I can find what compressor you put on your mix buss, but being the dude who’s the genius with arrangement? That’s the whole game, and they never talk about any of that in any magazines, tutorials, or anything. That’d be like if I wrote a book on the art of not overplaying on the bass—it would be a boring book, but it would be a book that would make you the most money.”

6. The Big Takeaway: Tomorrow’s Producers Were Trained on YouTube

In talking to Jayme, I pumped him over and over with questions concerning the actual process of producing—specifically, the differences between today and previous decades. His answers, though interesting, often seemed to lack the context I was looking for; he had little frame of reference as to what producing looked like twenty or thirty years ago. We spoke of producers we had both worked with early in our career, the stories we had heard, but could nail nothing concrete down.

It turned out the problem was with my framing of the issue at hand: I failed to take an essential aspect of 2017's production landscape into account; for someone like Jayme, producing an artist resembles an act that, if you’re reading this article, you’re likely familiar with—sitting down in your own studio and tinkering away for hours, in accordance with your particular routines, skill sets, and techniques.

And this, it seemed, was the very point. Consider the following:

“C’mon man,” I complained in frustration, “you worked for producers, you saw how they worked! What’s the difference between then and now?”

“I don’t feel super qualified to answer that question,” Jayme replied. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that honestly I didn’t have that kind of background. I didn’t sit under a producer, I didn’t have a mentor. I’m literally the product of YouTube tutorials and scouring online forums for information, and sitting in a room, figuring it out. I’m the guy who still doesn’t know Pro Tools, because I just went ahead with Ableton and got my stuff together.”

This seemed interesting, so I asked him to go on.

“I’m the guy who came home from tour and bought Tube-Tech compressors and stuff, because I never worked in studios. I tried to build a studio at home. Like, to this day, I’ve always been my own island. When I was learning how to produce, I had one friend, and that’s it. I taught myself the stuff.”

“Is that new?" I asked. "Is the YouTube class really coming up now, or has it been like this for a while?”

“Why wouldn’t it be like this? I mean, if I can find the information just by Googling it, everybody else can. There’s no excuse to not know. I can Google very specific things, like ‘delay before reverb or reverb before delay Gearslutz’, and then I’ll get a bunch of opinions. I’ll at least try some of what they say. I didn’t go to school for this—I went to school for jazz, you know that. When I was on tour, when the other guys were chasing women, I was reading tutorials.”

“But do you think that’s new to now?" I interjected. "People have always been teaching themselves things, but I don’t know if people have been teaching each other in this remote way we’re seeing these days.”

“I'll say this," Jayme said. "People seem to be more interested in sharing the information than using it. So I use that to my advantage. I’m not going to make a tutorial about my mix buss, but if you want to, and it helps me sell a record? F**k yeah!”

This might seem harsh, but for one thing, Jayme definitely put a smile in his tone when he said this. For another, the fellow had a palpable point: In his mind, producers in 2017 do one thing above all else: they work. Yes, contemporary producers practices their craft with the tools at hand—and these days that often includes forays into YouTube and forums—but once the techniques are inculcated, the producer sits down and gets to work.

“If I have four hours, I’m not gonna make a tutorial,” he said. “I’m going to finish a record and get it to a client.”